Bird of the Month - August 2020

Each month, Birds Queensland highlights a Bird of the Month. To learn more about our Queensland birds, make sure you return to this page each month to read about the featured species.

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House Sparrows Passer domesticus

Article: Peter Crow

House Sparrow - Marree Hotel
House Sparrow - Marree Hotel
©Linda Sulakatku

House Sparrows, introduced from Europe during the nineteenth century, were once common in most Australian towns and cities. Today we need lots of local knowledge to find any to include in our twitch lists. The Handbook of Australian New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (HANZAB) suggests they are recorded on all continents except Antarctica. In Australia they are shown as common throughout most of eastern and southern Australia but we seldom see any in most cities and larger towns. HANZAB reports large declines during 1980s and 1990s. They are often common in older small towns. In western Queensland and northern South Australia every small town has a population. Why have Sparrows declined in larger places is a common question.

House Sparrow - Cunnamulla
House Sparrow - Cunnamulla
© Linda Sulakatku

The First Atlas of Australian Birds (1984) and the Second Atlas (2004) show surprisingly similar reporting.

Sixteen years have passed since the second Atlas and I strongly suspect distribution or at least density has changed considerably. Around 2000 Sparrows were common around most of Brisbane but not today.


HANZAB has quite an extensive report on sparrows.

Sparrows are seed and insect eaters. In very large numbers they damaged grain and fruit crops but are credited with wiping out cattle ticks in northern New Zealand. As Sparrows were considered to be pests, they were the target of many forms of persecution from shooting to paying a bounty for every bird killed. When petrol had a lead content it was suggested that the lead killed them off. Other pollutants were also blamed. Other more far-fetched reasons have been suggested but the answer is probably simple. Birds need food and water but also places to hide from predators and places to nest and bring up young.

House Sparrow - Marree Hotel
House Sparrow - Marree Hotel
© Linda Sulakatku

Before World War II and just after it houses, and buildings were built in such a way that Sparrows and other birds could enter the roof spaces to nest. Birds cannot access the roof spaces of modern buildings. Millions of nesting sites have been closed off to Sparrows. Sparrows are communal breeders. It was common for several nests to be built in the same roof space, shrub or whatever. The increase in Noisy Miners may have contributed to the House Sparrow's decline.

Once upon a time (this is not a fairy tale) almost every yard had a chook run where sparrows could get a feed. Not many chook yards today. Sparrows also roosted and nested in dense hedges. Such hedges are less common today than in the past. These decreases in nesting places are probably a major contributor to the decrease in sparrows.

On a recent trip through rural northern South Australia every small settlement had Sparrows. They were all old settlements, places settled over a hundred years ago with lots of old buildings.

This story of how we modified the breeding environment which probably caused the decline of Sparrows probably applies to other species. Are we engineering the decline of many native species in a similar manner? I leave you to answer that.

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